Warsaw with Jessie Reyez

With a few days of holiday still to use up before Christmas, I decided to head out to Poland’s capital and stay with my friend, Jarek, whom I’d met in a more tropical country some years ago now. Warsaw’s history over the past century is well documented for the atrocities and terrible hardship it suffered during the Nazi occupation of Poland, the start of which was the breaking point that began World War II. The city is now returning to its original status as one the most thriving centres in Eastern Europe for culture and the arts, with countless modern museums, galleries, bars and leisure centres, as well as its iconic covered markets or hałas.

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The Warsaw Spire complex, completed in 2016.

Jarek works for a creative workspace in the Śródmieście borough near Hała Koszyki, so that is where I headed to when I first arrived, to say hello and drop off my luggage. Hała Koszyki is one of Warsaw’s many covered market halls, and has recently been re-generated to house a splendid array of coffee bars, restaurants and organic food stores. I can’t praise enough what they’ve done with the space; staying true to the original design but now with added focaccia and some gentle piano music playing overhead as the locals sip on their craft ales and eat halloumi burgers. A large, tastefully decorated spruce was the focal point of the hała, and as it was now nearing the end of November, I allowed myself to feel slightly festive for the first time. A drinks and nibbles thing was going on at Jarek’s workplace that evening which I was invited to. After a much needed scrub-up and outfit change, I found myself perched on the end of a plush sofa with a large glass of red and a selection of Polish canapés, making conversation with a group of people who all very kindly switched to English for my benefit. Just as the conversation was starting to dwindle, a magician appeared (walked over from the next sofa) and performed a series of tricks which were equally confusing whichever language you spoke. After working with and befriending several Polish people over the years, being the only Brit at a function here didn’t feel quite as alien as it might have done in another country. Whilst Jarek was off schmoozing clients, I very quickly tapped into the wry sense of humour and easy-going nature of the group I was sitting with, many of whom had either studied or worked in the UK at some point. With the UK and Poland forming closer ties during the aftermath of World War II, the late 20th Century saw a steady stream of Polish nationals emigrating to join the British workforce and settle away from the scars and dark memories of a country destroyed by fascism. The expansion of the EU in 2004 saw more movement, partly people coming to join their families, partly those seeking employment and a fresh start. There are now an estimated 922,000 Poles living in the UK and making up a valuable part of the workforce across all sectors. The Brexit referendum in 2016 saw a sharp rise in violence towards Polish people, with hate crimes increasing by 46% in the immediate aftermath of the vote. I had half expected a little hostility on the subject of Brexit, but they seemed remarkably breezy over it. The impression I got was that they had all greatly enjoyed their time in the UK, but no one seemed particularly keen on returning. I suppose who would want to go back to a sniffy and unwelcoming island nation that is in the midst of a wholly unnecessary political meltdown?

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Winter setting in outside the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

The weather during my short visit (permanent blizzard conditions with strong winds) would have caused Britain to come to a standstill, but somehow the Poles managed to soldier on and go about their business as usual. As this trip took place pre-Beast from the East, I quite naively expected this to be the only snow I’d experience that winter. With a hoodless coat and thin H&M jeans on, I probably wasn’t best prepared to tackle an icy Eastern European snowstorm, but luckily for me, Warsaw is abundant in fascinating and well-funded museums. The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews is an impressive postmodern building on the sight of the former Jewish ghetto which was destroyed in 1943. A clear highlight is a stunning reconstruction of the interior of the 17th century Gwoździec Synagogue, which was fire damaged by advancing Russian forces in World War I, then partly rebuilt only to be completely destroyed by the Germans in 1941. For over a thousand years, Poland was home to one of the largest and most vibrant Jewish communities in the world, but troubles began to emerge over the last couple of centuries as antisemitism rose from both Russian and Germanic influences. The museum’s accessible and well-curated exhibitions take you through this history from when Poland was the centre of the Jewish world in the 1500s, through to growing antisemitism and the eventual Nazi genocide in of around 6 million European men, women and children, from which only 11% of Poland’s Jews survived. It’s hard to write about this without sounding contrived, but facing the reality of what happened, and acknowledging the shear cruelty that humans are capable of reaching seems incredibly important, especially during the current global climate of social division. The Warsaw Rising Museum, located in the Wola district, documents the failed bid for liberation from German forces by Polish underground resistance groups during the summer of 1944. Filled with artefacts, archive footage and interviews from survivors, the details of these 63 days of fighting are exposed, with particular focus on the lives of civilians during this bloody and complex era.

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A glimpse of the beautifully reconstructed Gwoździec Synagogue ceiling.

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Warsaw’s reconstructed Old Town.

Since the war, Warsaw’s old town, or Stare Miasto, has been carefully reconstructed and has established popularity with tourists, however, most Poles I speak to seem quite cynical about this and tell me to go to Krakow for real Polish architecture instead. The ominous Palace of Culture and Science was given to Poland as a “gift” from the Soviets, and looms over the centre of the city, acting as a focal point. As with other outrageously large buildings in post-Soviet countries, it acts as an imposing reminder that says “the Soviets were here at some point in time”. Jarek’s friends questioned why I had chosen to come to Warsaw in the middle of winter, because apparently summer is the best season, when bars are open along the Vistula River and its banks become a sociable beach hangout. I promised I would return and am already starting to visualise a longer trip incorporating Gdansk, Warsaw and Krakow. The perk of being in Warsaw as a guest and not just a tourist was that I was guaranteed great food, and Jarek’s choice of restaurants certainly did not disappoint. Nestled in the Old Mokotów neighbourhood just south of the centre, Restauracja PAPU is a cosy traditional old-style Polish establishment with wooden beams, white tablecloths, a large fireplace adorned with firs and fairy lights and, of course, a sparkling Christmas tree in the corner. A wholesome pumpkin soup warmed me through after a day of trekking around in the snow, and a rich roasted duck with cherry sauce was washed down perfectly with a Portuguese Merlot. An unfortunate earlier incident with Uber was soon forgotten as we sat back and put the world to rights. PAPU is a real treat, and I will be insisting on going back when I’m next in Poland.

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The Palace of Culture and Science standing strong through a blizzard.

Whilst braving Warsaw’s bitter winds, I listened to a lot of music, but it was Canadian singer Jessie Reyez’s debut EP Kiddo which stood out. Reyez is a singer and songwriter who has worked closely with Calvin Harris (through whom I discovered her) and featured twice on Eminem’s problematic recent album, Kamikaze. Her latest songwriting credits include Harris’ 2018 megahits One Kiss (feat. Dua Lipa) and Promises (feat. Sam Smith). With just seven tracks, Kiddo brims with anger and sadness on the subjects of misogyny and manipulation, with particular emphasis on the music industry itself. The album opener, Fuck It, and most other tracks are very much “not for radio”, I suppose partly because they form an exposé on the inequalities that female artists face compared with their male counterparts. The standout track for me is the brutally honest Gatekeeper, whose lyrics “Oh I’m the gatekeeper, Spread your legs, Open up, You could be famous” unveil a dark set of rules sadly familiar to many women across all the arts. First hearing the song on a crowded tram, I was sickened by the idea of a “gatekeeper” to stardom, but certain men in power have used this guise for years, both for sexual gratification and as a form of dominance. Reyez’s impressive range shines through as she wails “my straightjacket’s custom made” on Shutter Island, and her mellow disappointment at being manipulated again by someone she loves is covered in her most well-known song, Figures. Blue Ribbon (feat. Tim Suby) has a definite M.I.A. vibe, and the interlude Colombian King & Queen gives us a raw insight into her heritage and upbringing. I would describe Reyez’s distinctive voice as similar to Halsey but not quite so bland, with the pitch of Jessie J but actually palatable. For me, it’s her devastatingly melancholic vocals that are the main pull for Kiddo. The controversial subject matter of the songs is the only reason I can think of for how this didn’t chart outside of Canada. EPs like this don’t tend to get big promotion deals or radio airplay for some reason. Maybe she’s missing a trick not dancing on stage in a one-piece next to Pitbull?

Listen to Kiddo here.

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